In a working-class Boston neighborhood, a young boy named Dave Boyle is playing stickball on the street with his friends Sean and Jimmy when he's abducted by men posing as cops. Over the course of the next few days, until he escapes, he will be repeatedly molested. The echo of this life-shattering event reverberates through every brooding frame of Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," a haunted thriller of disturbing power. Dave (Tim Robbins) is now a father and a married man (Marcia Gay Harden plays his wife), but he walks with the stunned shuffle of a man who's been emotionally lobotomized. The three childhood friends have grown apart. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who runs a convenience store and wields power in the neighborhood. The upwardly mobile Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective whose wife has left him.
Violence split them apart, and violence brings them back together when the dead body of Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found in a park. Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) lead the official investigation. The grief-stricken, vengeful Jimmy has his own notions of justice, and only contempt for the law's deliberate pace. And one of the prime suspects, who arrived home the night of the murder with blood on his hands, is his old friend Dave.
Violence and revenge have been a staple of Eastwood's work from the beginning, but here he explores his subject from a new, more ambiguous angle, with no regard for macho titillation. In "Mystic River," violent acts have tangled consequences that refuse to go away, and the psychic violence draws almost as much blood as the guns and knives: the lacerations are frequently self-inflicted. Working from Brian Helgeland's sure-handed adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, Eastwood has made his most intense, pain-filled movie, steeped in Roman Catholic guilt and sexual shame. It's also his most humane in its respect for the complex humanity of its characters. It's not the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot that fascinate Eastwood at this point in his career: it's the twists and turns of the heart.
This is the most impressive cast Eastwood's ever assembled, and his watchful, unhurried style gives them room to breathe and shine. Penn's bold, anguished performance is extraordinary, almost operatic in scale. He has a great scene with Robbins at his daughter's wake, the two haunted men alone on the back porch, with a lifetime of unspoken words flowing between them. Robbins gets deep inside Dave's fractured, unrepairable psyche, while deftly avoiding making him merely a figure of pity. We're never quite sure what's going on inside this man; and neither is his conflicted, jittery wife, played by Harden with the tautness of a rabbit caught in headlights. There are a few missteps. In the coda, the transformation of Penn's wife (Laura Linney) into a Lady Macbeth figure seems to come out of nowhere. The gimmick of never revealing the face of Bacon's estranged wife belongs in a different, cheesier movie. And the somber, organ-toned score, written by Eastwood himself, can be overinsistent in a soap-operatic way. But "Mystic River's" occasional lapses pale in the face of its bruising force. The act of violation that begins the film sets off a devastating chain of events that no one could foresee or forestall. Under the cover of an urban whodunit, Eastwood has made an authentic American tragedy.